They began showing up the first weekend of October, hundreds of immigrant families deposited in Yuma and Tucson, Arizona. They came, almost entirely, from Central America, some seeking asylum, some seeking work, all hoping for a better life in the United States. They were parents with children of all ages. Some of the women were pregnant.
Advocates on the ground in the Sonoran Desert had seen a version of this before. In 2014, amid a record influx of unaccompanied Central American children and families arriving at the border, the Border Patrol dumped more than 400 people at bus stations in Tucson and Phoenix in a single week. The practice went on for months, and it fell to churches, immigration advocates, and humanitarian volunteers to scoop up the men, women, and children left on the street with no place to go.
And so when the drop-offs started up again over Columbus Day weekend, southern Arizona’s immigration advocacy community knew what to do. This time around, however, as the volunteers moved families into local motels, there was a hope that their work could be kept quiet.
“We were trying to keep it low profile for the privacy and the safety of the families,” Teresa Cavendish, director of operations for Catholic Community Services of Southern Arizona, told The Intercept.
Cavendish’s organization was among the first to be told of Immigration and Custom Enforcement’s plans to begin making large-scale releases of immigrant families in southern Arizona, with the agency informing them of its intent to release approximately 1,100 people, beginning with a group of nearly 800 individuals starting on the first weekend of the month. While CCS has for years coordinated with local ICE officers in Arizona to provide support for immigrants released into the community, the size of the population ICE described marked a significant departure from recent practices. They had less than 24 hours to prepare for the first wave of arrivals.
More than half of the first group was Guatemalan, Cavendish estimated. Facing an entrenched combination of food insecurity, poverty, drought, and crime, Guatemalans have made up an increasingly large share of border apprehensions over the last year, with more than 42,000 Guatemalan family members taken into custody during an 11-month period, nearly double the total from last year. CCS rented space at motels in Yuma and south Tucson to accommodate the new arrivals. Rooms were converted into makeshift processing centers and spaces where food, clothing, and medicine could be found. Consulate officials, high school teachers, and lawyers brushed past one another, as southern Arizona’s experienced, and deeply-rooted, immigrant advocacy community quietly went to work.
While the safety and privacy of the families was the primary motivation for trying to keep a low profile, Cavendish acknowledged that there was another reason the volunteers had hoped to keep their service operation quiet, one that had to do with the current political moment. With less than two weeks to go until the midterm elections, the Trump administration has aggressively returned to the narrative that the president rode in on: the notion that the border is a place of extraordinary violence and chaos, and the implication that the people who cross it heading north are dangerous subhumans.
As Election Day approaches, all signs indicate that Trump is set on manufacturing a new border crisis, seizing on a caravan of migrants making their way through Mexico as the latest symbol of the imagined threat that he owes much of his political success to. Even amid a week of extraordinary right-wing violence that saw a sprawling, nationwide bomb plot targeting some of the country’s most powerful political figures, a white shooter attempting to enter a black church before killing two African-Americans in Kentucky, and an attack on a Pittsburgh synagogue that left 11 people dead, Trump could be found urgently informing his base that the real “national emergency” facing the United States was external, and the result of brown-skinned migrants.
It’s political theater, but it’s had real-world consequences. In his railing against the caravan, Trump claimed last week that “unknown Middle Easterners” were mingled in among the crowd. It was a baseless suggestion and the president later admitted as much, but it was amplified nonetheless. Robert Bowers, the accused shooter in the Pittsburgh synagogue attack, included the Trumpian conspiracy theory among the deeply anti-Semitic complaints he posted on a right-wing social media site. Trump has already called up military assets to respond to the caravan. According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, “Operation Faithful Patriot” will include the deployment of 5,000 troops to the border. As the paper noted, “the additional troops would mean that the number of U.S. forces deployed at the border would be greater than those currently in Syria and Iraq, and roughly half of those deployed in Afghanistan.” The show of force is remarkable, considering the fact that the caravan is nearly 1,000 miles away, comprised of unarmed people, and diminishing in size as the days go on. And while Kirstjen Nielsen, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, has said, “We do not have any intention right now to shoot at people,” her agents at U.S. Customs and Border Protection have already begun drilling riot response teams in anticipation of the caravan’s arrival.
In a piece for the American Conservative last week, senior editor Rod Dreher wrote of the caravan, “If this didn’t exist, seems like the GOP would have to invent it.” Dreher then compared the framing of the caravan to “The Camp of the Saints,” a deeply racist French novel detailing the arrival of waves of impoverished Indians to the shores of France. The message of the book is not subtle: The arrival of the foreigners, described as “thousands of wretched creatures” aboard ships run over with “rivers of sperm,” is met with dithering and inaction by liberals and the French elite, ultimately ushering in the downfall of white European society. Honorable Christian men sacrifice their lives in a failed attempt to beat back the horde. In recent years, Steve Bannon, the Breitbart executive and one-time Trump White House adviser, has repeatedly referenced “The Camp of the Saints” as a lens through which he sees the issue of global migration.
An English version of “The Camp of the Saints” was released in 1975 by the Social Contract Press, a white nationalist publishing house founded by John Tanton, a retired Michigan ophthalmologist described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as the “principal ideologue of the modern nativist movement,” whose lifetime achievements also included the creation of three of the most influential, hard-right, anti-immigrant outfits in recent U.S. history: the Center for Immigration Studies, Federation for American Immigration, and NumbersUSA.
Last week, Mark Krikorian, executive director of CIS, laid out his vision of what the Trump administration should do about the caravan, calling for a shutdown of the 2,000-mile divide with Mexico, the deputization of state and local law enforcement to make immigration arrests, the activation of a so-called safe third country agreement that would require Central American asylum-seekers to seek refuge in Mexico, and withdrawal from a U.N. refugee treaty that includes membership in a “particular social group” among the grounds for asylum.
The marshaling of a chaos-based narrative from the administration and its allies comes as overall illegal border crossings remain historically low, while the population that is crossing is increasingly made up of Central American families seeking asylum. As Vox immigration reporter Dara Lind has noted, this dynamic constitutes a “crisis” in the eyes of the administration because asylum-seekers have additional rights — which the administration calls “loopholes” — that prohibit their immediate deportation and their indefinite detention in instances in which children are involved.
From day one, the administration’s nativist core has been trying to find a way around these perceived problems. Late last week, stories began to surface describing the president’s latest gambit to address this “national emergency”: an executive order barring all Central Americans from applying for asylum. Such an action would all but guarantee a swift response from the courts, and many immigration legal experts believe that it would be patently illegal under domestic and international law.
Still, if the past is any indication, an influential core of the president’s inner circle has zero problem ramming through legally dubious and profoundly provocative border enforcement measures. In May, Stephen Miller, the White House adviser and architect of many of Trump’s most punishing anti-immigrant policy projects, told Breitbart News that delivering on immigration would be the administration’s No. 1 priority heading into the midterms.
On the ground in Arizona, three weeks before reports of a border-based executive order began to surface, there was a sense that if the systematic dumping of immigrants became a national story, it would be a story of chaos. That would play precisely into the border story the administration has peddled to justify some of its most draconian immigration initiatives, including the systematic separation of thousands of migrant children from their parents, and an ongoing effort to overturn a court ruling prohibiting the indefinite detention of migrant families. Perhaps, the suspicion went, the government would make a “look what we’ve been forced to do” argument in a play for expanded detention and deportation powers. Better to just do the work that needed to get done, help the people that needed help, and not add fuel to the fire, the volunteers concluded.
Eventually, however, local and national media got wind of the migrant drop-offs. It was inevitable, as word spread on social media and volunteers in Tucson began showing up to provide support for arriving families. Henry Lucero, ICE’s field office director in Phoenix, told the Arizona Daily Star that the releases were simply a matter of capacity — that while ICE could process roughly 120 family members a day, Border Patrol agents in Arizona, particularly in the Yuma sector, were apprehending as many 200 family members a day. “We couldn’t continue to do business as usual,” he said.
Arizona wasn’t alone in seeing a dramatic rise in the mass release of immigrant families. As it turned out, the state was the pilot location for a new border-wide Trump administration initiative. On Thursday, hours before stories began to circulate of the administration’s purported plan to close the border to asylum-seekers, Ruben Garcia sent a message to the public. For four decades, Garcia’s Annunciation House, in El Paso, Texas, has served as a border refuge for the poor, including migrants and asylum-seekers. During that time, Garcia has developed a working relationship with the Border Patrol, routinely receiving immigrants released from government custody.
If anyone on the border could be expected to have a credible sense of whether a particular change in U.S. government policy might have serious implications, it would be Ruben Garcia. A message sent out last week conveyed that effect. “ALERT! CHANGE IN ICE POLICY,” were the opening words of Garcia’s post, shared on the Annunciation House Facebook page and in border advocacy email groups. Garcia explained that DHS would no longer hold families for time periods beyond what the courts allow, and that the government would no longer assist those families in “contacting relatives or friends to have them get bus or plane tickets nor will they transport families to bus stations or airports.” In practice, Garcia explained, this meant that all facets of support for newly released immigrant families — food, shelter, medical needs, travel logistics — would fall to civil society members. If the government apprehended 1,700 people in a week, Garcia went on to say, but Annunciation House and its allies could only take in 1,300 people, “the remaining 400 persons will be released to the street.”
“We desperately need more hospitality venues and volunteers to help staff the hospitality centers,” Garcia added. “Please, please, please, reach out to friends & churches. It is beyond tragic that as the weather gets colder, families with children will be released to the street.”
Border journalists in Texas soon picked up on the change in policy. On Thursday, Houston Chronicle reporter Lomi Kriel published a detailed story, which found that despite Trump administration claims that the nation’s three family detention centers were at capacity — a claim that DHS secretary Nielsen repeated in sworn Senate testimony — “federal statistics show that the three family detention facilities are currently only at 54 percent capacity, dropping more than 400 detainees since Oct. 18.”
In a statement to Valerie Gonzalez, an investigative reporter and producer with KRGV, a news channel in the Rio Grande Valley, ICE confirmed that the coordinated releases in Texas and Arizona were part of a border-wide initiative, which also included California and New Mexico. “After decades of inaction by Congress, the government remains severely constrained in its ability to detain and promptly remove families with no legal basis to remain in the U.S. As a result, family units continue to cross the border at high volumes,” ICE’s statement said. “To mitigate the risk of holding family units past the time frame allotted to the government, ICE began curtailing all reviews of post-release plans from families apprehended along the southwest border on Tuesday.”
In a background section of the statement, ICE called out the longstanding court settlement that provides protections for migrant children and their parents by name — the same settlement the Trump administration has been working to dismantle. “Prior to releasing a family unit within the time allotted by judicial decisions interpreting the Flores Settlement Agreement, ICE previously reviewed their post-release plan, including ensuring they had secured travel arrangements to reach a final destination in the United States,” the statement read. “There is no requirement that this review be conducted, it was a self-imposed process instituted by ICE. However, due to the recent uptick in family units presenting along the Southwest border, ICE no longer has the capacity to conduct these reviews without risking violation of the Flores limitations on lengths of stay for families in both CBP and ICE custody.”
As Garcia noted in his call for support, the shift in policy would have immediate and potentially dangerous effects on immigrant families, the border communities in which they were released, and the organizations working to support them. Leaving families and small children on street corners in unfamiliar foreign cities poses obvious risks; it strains local resources; and it bleeds civil society organizations such as Annunciation House dry as they work to provide food, shelter, medicine, and travel arrangements for the new arrivals. Those consequences were on vivid display in El Paso Friday night, when approximately 100 Central American families were dropped at a local bus station without notice. The police were called and they, in turn, called emergency medical service providers, who determined that a number of the recently released detainees were in need of medical care. Garcia gathered the disoriented families together and led them, on foot, to former Catholic school roughly a mile from the bus station.
“As we were walking, I was fighting just to not break down crying,” Garcia told veteran border reporter Bob Ortega.
For some, it has been hard to look at the shift in policy and not wonder if, somewhere in the Trump administration, a conclusion was made that flooding border cities with destitute migrant families, then blaming it all on Trump’s political opponents, could be folded into the broader “Camp of the Saints”-style chaos narrative the White House has been selling as voters head to the polls. “Let’s be clear. This is an intentionally created ‘crisis’ timed and planned to have maximum impact on the midterm elections,” Steve Kozachik, a Tucson City Council member, wrote in an October 12 op-ed for the Arizona Daily Star. “It’s all about politics and optics. It’s all about using young moms and their children as political pawns in our election cycle. And its disgusting.”
On Friday, as she headed to immigration court in El Paso, Molly Molloy, a border and Latin America specialist at the New Mexico State University Library, considered the possibility that the mass releases may have been politically motivated. “I think that’s a reasonable assumption based on what Trump is saying,” Molloy told The Intercept. Still, she said, even if that was not the case, the drop-offs and the response to them reflect a now-familiar pattern. “This burden of dealing with these refugees is completely put upon civil society in the United States,” she explained. “The government does these random haphazard things and then people who care are left to pick up the pieces.”
“This isn’t just Trump,” Molloy pointed out. “Trump has just ramped it up, but this bullshit has been going on for decades.”
Cavendish, in Arizona, said it was possible that the change in policy could be linked to a midterms political strategy. “I might have a personal opinion about that, which is that these things do seem to be lining up,” she said. “So that is a consideration.” At the same time, Cavendish noted, it was also possible that other factors could have led to the shift. From her vantage point, it seemed that the immigration enforcement agents on the ground were just as in the dark as the advocates.
“They don’t know what’s happening until it happens, and they’re just expected to respond to it,” she said. “It’s really hard to say where they’re going with this one.”
Clarity could be coming soon. The president is scheduled to give a major speech on border security Tuesday night, in which he is expected to unveil the plan his administration has been working on. Meanwhile, in churches and motels from Texas to California, families keep coming and the communities dedicated to supporting them continue their work under increasingly strained circumstances.